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Manhunt Series Review: Thrilling but Inconsistent

A theatre scene in the Apple TV+ series Manhunt

Monica Beletsky’s series Manhunt starts and ends strongly but is formulaic and overly familiar for too much of its 7-episode run.

It’s often said that the most important parts of a story are how it begins and how it ends. More than anything else, what you should focus on first is how you hook the viewer and what you leave them thinking about. Whilst it may not be the best way to think about storytelling, there’s certainly some truth to it, and nothing I’ve seen recently really encapsulates that quite like Monica Beletsky’s new miniseries, Manhunt, based on James L. Swanson’s 2006 novel, “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer.” Manhunt’s first episode is riveting from start to end, featuring a brilliantly executed central set piece, but what it does immediately is give the viewers a high that it spends the rest of its runtime struggling to reach again. Then, in its final episode, it finally recaptures that spark, giving us a thrilling courtroom drama. 

Now, I’m not saying that Manhunt is bad at all. If anything, its main problem is that it’s all just a bit too “fine”. Set in the period following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (Hamish Linklater), the show follows the search to track down his assassin, John Wilkes Booth (Anthony Boyle). It’s an exciting premise, and what Manhunt does expertly is spend its premiere selling that to you in the most interesting way imaginable. We see the assassination through the eyes of Booth, and director Carl Franklin does a great job staging one of the most re-enacted killings of all time in a unique and shocking manner. It’s Manhunt’s best moment, and it’s a shame that what follows is a very by-the-numbers period drama.

Of course, Manhunt still has plenty of strong points throughout its 7-episode run. Easily the best thing it’s got going for it is Patton Oswalt’s beard, a majestic mane that I can only aspire to one day match. Outside of some truly phenomenal facial hair, it’s all very well-acted. Linklater is a solid Lincoln in the few moments he’s called upon, and the rest of the ensemble does a good job in making the relatively formulaic writing not feel like too much of a drag. Matt Walsh, playing Samuel Mudd, does a great job in making his character inherently detestable, and Tobias Menzies is a perfectly respectable lead, although I never felt like his character, secretary of war Edwin Stanton, was anywhere near interesting enough to carry a show like this.

That might be the perfect summary of Manhunt, actually. It’s perfectly respectable, but it struggles to justify its own existence as a 7-episode miniseries. As it goes on, it seems to struggle more and more to find anything interesting to say, or come up with any exciting ways to present what’s going on. It’s all just a bit too familiar for too long, which is why I was so surprised that episode 7, the show’s final outing, pulled me back in from almost its first minute. Offices are exchanged for courtrooms, and it makes for an unexpectedly riveting hour of television, providing payoff after payoff that, even though I wasn’t too invested in the majority of the characters by this point, still worked wonders for me. 

Anthony Boyle raises his hand during a speech on the stage in the Apple TV+ series Manhunt
Anthony Boyle in “Manhunt,” premiering March 15, 2024 on Apple TV+. (Apple TV+)

How did they pull this off? Well, for one, the pacing helps. The episode feels like it moves at a far more engaging speed than the others in the mini-series, a trait that it seems to share with the show’s premiere. Whilst it’s still very “talk-y”, the dramatic beats are significantly more impactful, and by the end of it all, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for those final few lines. It’s an ending that might just be too good for Manhunt, and one that has very much altered how I see the show as a whole. Yes, the majority of this may be a relatively forgettable, predictable period drama, but underneath that facade, it contains the odd moment of brilliance, that hint at something more, something fresh and exciting. 

Ultimately, Manhunt frustrates me. It’s a show with a remarkable opening and a thoroughly engaging finale, but the middle is just too bland and over-done, and unfortunately that winds up being the majority of the series. I’d probably recommend it purely based on how strong it can be, but it’s hardly a consistent show and that “can” is definitely the exception and not the rule, meaning that if I was to ever come back to it, it’d probably be through watching clips on YouTube rather than actually sitting down and rewatching the whole thing. It’s not the worst fate for a show, but it’s hardly the desired outcome, especially when the signs are there that it could have been something great. At the very least though, it does feature some brilliant facial hair.

Watch on Apple TV

Manhunt premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 15, 2024.

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